When I first learned that Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, would be offering free internet services, I was perplexed because the news sounded like a narrative from the recently released action sci-fi movie, Kingsman: The Secret Service, I had just watched. In the movie, the villain, Internet billionaire Richmond Valentine announces a give way of SIM cards, granting free cellular and Internet access to all, in a sinister plot to reduce the world’s population. So learning that Facebook had begun a project, Internet.org, which is a platform for free online services, had me thinking – ‘Free internet, is it possible? What’s the catch – a reduction in the world’s population ‘ala Kingsman’ or a genuine attempt at offering online services to the millions of people, especially in the developing world, who desire but cannot afford to go online? Having followed the rows in India against Internet.org I have come to understand what the catch is; the argument is centred on whether Facebook’s offering of free internet contravenes the term ‘internet neutrality’.
Internet.org is a free mobile data platform that aims to extend internet services to the offline millions in the developing world by offering a selection of apps and websites free to customers. Since 2014, the project has been launched in Zambia, India, Colombia, Guatemala, Tanzania, Kenya, Ghana, the Philippines and Indonesia.
Proponents of the platform, state that is better to offer some internet access to those who cannot afford internet services than none at all. Opponents of the platform state that the scheme threatens the principle of ‘net neutrality’, a principle that requires all websites and apps to be equally accessible. The contravening factor is that Facebook is offering access to some sites and apps over others. In addition, smaller app developers, publishers and telecom companies fear that the scheme distorts the market and makes it harder for such sized companies to get their products seen by the public, since stripped-down services will be offered on the Internet.org platform and companies will have to bear the brunt of the data charges; a feature that enables customers to access the apps for free. This requirement is advantageous to more-established and financially robust companies who can absorb the costs associated with handling Internet.org’s traffic. So why not make the internet free to all? Even, Mark Zuckerberg knows that it is not sustainable to offer the whole internet for free. As he said in an online video posted on Internet.org’s website, “it costs tens of billions of dollars every year to run the internet, and no operator could afford this if everything were free”. However, as he also insisted that, “it is sustainable to build free basic services that are simpler, use less data and work on all low-end phones”.
Opponents also have the notion that customers’ decision-making will be influenced, if not forced, because only limited options will be made available to customers. Moreover, much like the way Facebook conquered the social media space, ensuring that everyone wanted in, the opposition believes that the competitive aspect will be compromised because everyone would eventually be on this platform, regardless of whether you are for or against it – as the competition will feel compelled to join the platform in order not to miss out on new customers. Concerns have also been raised about the fact that this whole new internet phenomenon will be governed by Facebook, which again does not seat well with some in the internet community. These are all quirks that need to be ironed out by all stakeholders.
Notwithstanding, the benefits of getting more people connected to the internet cannot be understated. It is commendable of Mark Zuckerberg to be thinking along these lines and trying to improve connectivity, which he believes is a fundamental human right. In Nigeria, like in India, there are entire communities and families that do not have access to computers let alone internet. But with the advent of cheaper mobile phones and increased data penetration, in rural communities, more people are beginning to gain access to information. You only have to visit some of the farmers who have benefited in some way from the Nigerian government’s scheme of free cell phones to understand the benefits of Zuckerberg’s proposal. What if these farmers now have free internet access, perhaps they would be able to check the free weather forecast on the BBC app and be better prepared for unfavourable weather conditions? The barrier however remains cost.
A balance will need to be struck between the telecom providers, app developers / publishers, partners of Internet.org and the customers on who bares the cost of the data charges and what free really means. For it is in the interest of the offline five billion, presently more than a billion in India alone – that’s the equivalent of the populations of Europe and the United States combined – that free internet is afforded to all.
P.s. if you have not watched the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, I highly recommend it.